Guess what? Yahoo! Inc. has a new CEO.
For the fifth time in as many years, the struggling Internet company is on the hunt for a permanent leader. Many observers think that Yahoo! has already found one in its choice for interim CEO: Ross Levinsohn, the company's executive vice president and head of global media. Levinsohn was tapped May 13 to lead the company after shareholder Third Point LLC revealed that erstwhile CEO Scott Thompson, who had been hired just four months before, had padded his résumé with a bogus computer science degree.
Levinsohn, 48, brings a completely different set of skills to the table than his predecessor, who previously ran eBay Inc.'s online payment-processing unit PayPal Inc. He's a dealmaker (he reportedly pushed for Yahoo! to buy online TV site Hulu LLC last year, but then-CEO Carol Bartz wasn't on board) and a media guy with a wealth of experience in advertising, facts that are drawing cautious optimism from CEO-weary Yahoo! watchers.
"He has strong ties in Silicon Valley and in media and entertainment, and many people thought he was a strong candidate before Thompson came on," says Evercore Partners Inc. analyst Ken Sena.
The last time an interim chief was installed at Yahoo! (in September, after Bartz was ousted), the company's board chose chief financial officer Tim Morse to temporarily lead the company as the search for a permanent chief commenced. The fact that Levinsohn, who was thought to be on the short list for CEO after Bartz departed, was picked as interim chief instead of Morse fueled speculation that he will eventually take the role permanently.
Naturally, Yahoo! watchers are poring over Levinsohn's résumé (so far it appears that his educational credentials -- a communications degree from American University -- are listed accurately) for hints about how he would fare as a permanent chief. After being hired by Bartz in late 2010, Levinsohn oversaw ad sales, partnerships and content in the company's Americas region. His Madison Avenue experience and media ties are a big plus; neither Bartz nor Thompson possessed such history, despite the fact that most (about 80%) of Yahoo!'s nearly $5 billion in annual revenue last year came from advertising.
Before joining Yahoo!, he ran the day-to-day operations of News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media, reporting directly to Rupert Murdoch. His dealmaking moves while there, however, are hard to qualify as outright successes. Levinsohn helped build Murdoch's digital empire by aiding with the September 2005 purchase of IGN, a group of video-gaming review websites, for $650 million. The deal quickly brought News Corp. a wealth of Web traffic, but since last year, the parent company reportedly has been trying to spin off the business.
Another potentially troubling episode is Levinsohn's involvement in a high-profile acquisition that many consider a failure: the $580 million purchase in July 2005 of Intermix Media Inc., the parent of social network MySpace. At the time, it was a big statement for News Corp., which snapped up the company from the clutches of rival Viacom Inc., and it represented a major move in the digital direction for the media giant (the deal was announced weeks before the IGN acquisition). Back then, MySpace was nearly 3 times as large as Facebook Inc.
But an apparent lack of understanding by News Corp. of how to keep MySpace competitive as Facebook took off led to the unit's decline. After it started bleeding money due to sliding ad and search revenue, News Corp. sold MySpace to online advertising company Specific Media LLC for a reported $35 million.
That kind of result is difficult to label a success. But in Levinsohn's eyes, the deal happened "before anyone knew what social networking was," he told paidContent last year. The growth of new users sprouted from 70,000 per day when MySpace was acquired by News Corp. to 450,000 daily when Levinsohn left, he argued.
Assuming Levinsohn gets the permanent gig running Yahoo! -- or runs it like he will -- will his media chops be what the company needs to get back on its feet? As media chief, he has been busy striking new content partnerships for Yahoo!, including a big online news content deal with ABC News last year.
Terry Semel, the former Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. chief who led Yahoo! from 2001 to 2007, tried and failed to push a similar vision for Yahoo! as a media company. Yahoo! was beset by nimbler rivals and was hobbled by not having developed a strong search advertising offering. That was remedied in part by the $680 million purchase of ad exchange Right Media in 2007, but by the time Yahoo! made its next important advertising purchase -- the $300 million acquisition of behavioral ad firm BlueLithium in September of that year -- Semel was out, replaced by co-founder Jerry Yang.
Levinsohn takes the reins of a company that, despite all the confusion of its mission and changes in leadership, has a strong, albeit slow-growing, base of ad revenue and a big user base: It still attracts some 700 million users a month. If he can prove to be the leader the company has needed, and figure out a direction that works, Levinsohn might succeed where so many others failed. He's already acting like a permanent CEO, replacing some of Thompson's management team with his own handpicked execs. "I liked Scott, but Ross brings a new kind of energy to the post," says Susquehanna Financial Group LLLP analyst Herman Leung.
It's not necessarily a safe bet, judging from the way things have gone with Yahoo! leaders, but maybe Levinsohn will be at the helm for a little longer than his immediate predecessors.